About 70 partisans gathered yesterday for the first of four statewide public hearings on gun control -- some with tales and fear of family shootings and others with handbills and a sign calling for fewer firearm restrictions.
It was a chance to voice their concerns about gun violence and gun controls to a 17-member commission appointed last April by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The commission is expected to report to the governor by Nov. 1, with legislative proposals and other recommendations for curbing gun trafficking, violence and accidents.
Yesterday, as commission members listened through the four-hour hearing at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre in Columbia, the pleas for tougher gun control laws and the arguments for firearm freedom were virtually equal.
But few testimonies were as moving as that of Patti Gerhardt, a 19-year-old Lutherville resident. She called for tougher gun control laws as she recounted the shooting death of her stepbrother Patrick Benjamin Cawley, 19, two weeks ago in North Baltimore.
"Handguns are nothing but a menace to all of us," Ms. Gerhardt said, while another teen-age gun control proponent stood next to her holding a sign that read "Stop the Guns, Stop the Tears."
She and others called for tougher gun registration laws, the banning of gun purchases by minors and the banning of assault pistols and rifles. Some said they want bullets registered and restrictions on the number that can be bought.
But gun freedom advocates argued just as forcefully for the commission not to propose any plan that would diminish citizens' right to bear arms.
"Crime is the problem," Larry LaGuardia, of the Howard County Rifle and Pistol Club told the commission. "Let's face it. Criminals are criminals because they do not obey the laws. What we really need is crime control."
Dale Fewell of Severn sat with his two sons, an American flag and sign that read "Firearms mean freedom" in support of the gun users. The former Army captain said he keeps a revolver, shotgun and semiautomatic rifle in his home for recreational targeting shooting and home defense.
"It is a constitutional right of people to bear arms," Mr. Fewell said. "That should not be infringed upon. What part of infringe do people not understand?"
Earlier yesterday at the same college, about 350 people attended a six-hour debate on gun control -- also featuring both sides of the issue.
The constitutional right to bear arms does not mean that right "should infringe on another's" rights to safety, argued Richard Willis, executive director of Marylanders against Handgun Abuse.
"Eighty percent of Marylanders want strict gun control," but the greed surrounding handgun production leads people to say "there is no problem," he said.
But Paul Blackman, Research Coordinator of the National Rifle Association-Institute of Legislative Action-Grass Roots countered: "Restrictive gun laws won't be obeyed. Gun laws don't work."
In 1993, 70 percent of the nation's 24,526 murders were committed with firearms, according to Justice Department statistics.
Maryland has one of the toughest gun control plans in the country, with a seven-day waiting period, said Lynne A. Battaglia, the United States attorney for Maryland.
She also said a federal program called "Disarm," in operation about a year in Baltimore, has gone far to prosecute convicted felons caught with firearms.
"We're trying to get violent people off the street," she said after the forum. "No matter whether you are for or against gun control, nobody can be against the prosecution of people who have a violent past."
Yesterday's program helped Republican Del. Donald E. Murphy, who represents Baltimore and Howard counties, get a better handle on the gun-control issue before he considers legislation, he said. "This is going to be a major issue," he said.
Michael Manley, 15, a Mount Hebron High School student enrolled in the summer honors program, stood before an audience and argued for more gun control by citing the role of guns in suicides, homicides and accidental deaths each year.